Everyone is writing about a country
as if a country existed.
From “The Invention of America”
Katie Farris continues the powerful narrative of her award-winning chapbook, A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving, with her layered and memorable full-length debut, Standing in the Forest of Being Alive. Readers familiar with Farris will recognize the central arc, which traces Farris’ diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whereas her recent chapbook wholly focused on this experience, Farris expands her focus in Standing in the Forest of Being Alive to include broader questions of mortality, desire, and family on the other side of recovery. This is a layered and nuanced follow-up that revisits Farris’ talent for writing through illness while also highlighting her unique ability to explore desire in unexpected spaces.
Here, as with A Net to Catch My Body in its Weaving, Farris opens with a defense of her preoccupation with desire, presenting “Why Write Love Poems in a Burning World” as a precursor to the first section of the book. Farris argues in favor of writing love poems “To train [herself] to find in the midst of hell/what isn’t hell,” and “To train [herself] in the midst of a burning world/to offer poems of love to a burning world.” While this is a defense of writing love poems, the lines echo throughout as Farris approaches cancer with jarring optimism while never losing sight of the reality she faces. The speakers in poems addressing cancer treatment never appear naive or blinded to the potential of death, yet they avoid the bitterness and rage that so often accompanies experiences with chronic illness.
Some of the poems included in Standing in the Forest of Being Alive are a strong pivot from the primary narrative. “The Invention of America,” for example, zooms out to critique the dangers of nationalism and unchecked patriotism. The first section of the poem is a sharp-tongued litany in which all but the first line begin with America, grounding America in self-obsession in narcissism through Farris’ use of anaphora. Farris ends the section with a brilliant use of circular rhetoric:
America arrives and saves the day leaving
America relieved to have
America return to its
America where it reminds
The remaining sections of the poem invoke numerous critiques of contemporary society, ranging from government brutality to a failing healthcare system to capitalist exploitations of labor. Farris strongly asserts herself as an author with an ear to the ground of sociopolitical issues, even if she chooses to prioritize desire and survival most often in her poems.
My favorite poems in the collection confront the daily experiences of marriage. “Quid Pro Quo: A Dedication” is a disarmingly matter-of-fact poem in which the speaker begrudgingly succumbs to her lover’s demand that she write a poem if she wants a new mattress. The poem never moves beyond the exchange itself, instead embracing brutally short lines that echo the tone of the speaker, who closes with the impossibly sharp “So here’s/your god/damn/poem.” What makes these poems so endearing is that Farris continually offers seemingly unromantic moments fraught with frustration, only to return over and over to her appreciation for the moment. This is most evident in “Contrition,” a hilariously relatable poem in which the speaker approaches rage while lying next to her restless lover. In the end, though, the speaker calmly tells him, “Dream of water, my love,” after which the speaker shares that they both “let go/[their] moorings.”
Standing in the Forest of Being Alive is a brilliant debut, reasserting Farris as a rare and important voice in American poetry. She balances grace and strength perfectly, offering poems that will linger with readers for days at a time. This is a collection that readers will return to repeatedly, in times of crisis and in times of love.